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The Emergence of Natasha Howard

The third year forward has been a revelation off the bench for the Lynx this season.

When the Lynx signed and traded Devereaux Peters to the Indiana Fever for Natasha Howard prior to this season, it didn’t register as a move of great significance. An exchange of backup bigs, Peters was the more advanced, with four seasons under her belt to Howard’s two, and was the more efficient player who had played a role in two Lynx championships. In fact, it appeared that the move was made, at least in part, because Peters was at the end of her rookie scale contract, while Howard was not.

I figured Howard would plug in and provide some defense in the paint, grab a few boards, score the occasional bucket off the offensive glass, and hopefully not get in the way or bog things down.

Six months later, this:

She went 16-19 from the field in the three game sweep of Phoenix, including 8-11 in the close-out game with 17 points, and it frankly wasn’t that much of a surprise after what we’ve seen this year.

Natasha Howard has been a revelation.

Look at her three baskets in the video above: She beats the defense down the floor for the transition hoop, times her roll perfectly in the pick-and-roll and makes a contested finish, and grabs a loose ball under the basket and scores before the defense can think about reacting. It’s what we’ve been seeing all season as Howard has emerged as a significant force off the Lynx bench.

She’s even shown off some impressive post moves, on display at :50 of this video:

Howard has blossomed this year with the Lynx. After shooting 44 percent and 38 percent from the field in her first two seasons, she shot over 57 percent this season. Her confidence both around the basket and out to 12 feet or so seemed to grow on a nearly game to game basis. I don’t know whether the Lynx brain trust saw this coming when they traded for her or if they were equally surprised by her emerging offensive prowess, but the unlocking of her potential is a credit to both Howard and the coaching staff that worked with her.

She has learned to take advantage of her combination of size and agility on both ends of the floor. Defensively, she’s big enough to handle post players, and quick enough to switch onto perimeter players. Her athleticism and hustle allow her to switch and recover, disrupting opposing offenses. Meanwhile, offensively she uses her speed to get transition opportunities, and her agility to finish through defenses on pick and rolls, in the post, and off the glass.

Her impact, despite averaging under 15 minutes per game, has been profound. Her terrific play has allowed Coach Cheryl Reeve to limit the minutes of her starting bigs Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson without losing effectiveness. Her .239 WS/48 (after seasons of .038 and .036) is third best on the team behind only stars Maya Moore and Fowles. Her block percentage and defensive rating were second on the team behind only league Defensive Player of the Year Fowles. And she showed that she could step up to more minutes without losing effectiveness in the Mercury series, when she averaged 22 minutes per game in the absence of fellow bench big Janel McCarville.

Bench contributions have been a significant factor for the Lynx during the last six seasons. They’ve been loaded with stars, but they’ve had their most success when they’ve gotten quality play from reserves. Suspect bench play hurt them in 2014, when they fell to the Mercury in the Western Conference Finals. Last year, they were able to get newcomers Renee Montgomery and Anna Cruz integrated in time to play major roles in their run to their third title in five years. This season it’s been Howard’s emergence, along with veterans McCarville, Montgomery, and Jia Perkins who have provided the necessary quality minutes behind the star-laden starting five.

On Sunday, they open the Finals at home against the Los Angeles Sparks, who feature this season’s winner of the Sixth Woman of the Year Award, Jantel Lavender. Lavender is a deserving recipient, a center who averaged 19 minutes a game and scored an efficient 9.6 point per. But the Lynx will bring their own dynamic big off the bench to counter. Natasha Howard has earned the confidence of her team, and now has a chance to help bring another championship to Minnesota. It’s been a watershed season for the third year player, and she will look to end it with her hands on the trophy.

Thanks to Mike Peden (@TheSportsBrain) and Tony Porter (@porterzingis) for their help with this article.